Film and TV

There's Nothing Elementary About Ian McKellen's Turn in Mr. Holmes

Above all else, a movie built around a star promises presence, and in Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, that promise is dual: Here’s 100 or so minutes with the great Ian McKellen, for once not casting spells, controlling magnetism or classing up script pages of expositional gobbledygook. Besides that, Mr. Holmes offers us a playdate with a Sherlock who’s been absent from this century’s screens, one for whom deduction isn’t a super power or party trick, one who spots clues that you might spot, too.

But this is more elegy than game, a Sherlock Holmes at the End of Time. Based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mr. Holmes finds Sherlock in retirement, facing senility and the horrors of the twentieth century. Gently revisionist, the film and novel examine several eras of Holmes’s life, focusing on three. All three Holmeses are played by McKellen, who has never looked so old and dithering on screen. It’s a relief when Condon flashes back to a Baker Street case and McKellen jaunts about London in top hat and tails, vigorous as Fred Astaire.

We meet Sherlock near the White Cliffs of Dover, in 1947, raising bees for their royal jelly, which he believes might help steady his ailing memory. The nonagenarian lives with a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her excitable son, Roger (Milo Parker), who is eager to help with the apiary and to get some tales of adventure out of the old man. This Holmes lives in a century that’s not his, but he’s not giving up: He has set himself to the task of correcting the record of his life that John Watson and primitive movies have cemented in the public mind. To that end, Holmes endeavors to write the true account of his last case, a tale he says Watson got wrong. But Holmes can’t remember the ending, no matter how much Roger needles him to finish.

We see that case in energetic flashbacks. A husband (Patrick Kennedy) complains that his wife (Hattie Morahan), after losing two children, has fallen under the sway of her music teacher, a somewhat shamanistic woman who is expert in the spinning glass disks of the glass harmonica. The mystery here is slight but compelling — edged with sadness and cruelty, but enlivened by McKellen’s sprightliness and the sudden liberation of Condon’s cameras. This old but unretired Holmes makes jolly sport out of trailing a troubled wife, swanning about as if he truly was the turn-of-the-century pulp hero Watson (and Arthur Conan Doyle) insisted. Eventually, he tricks her with a bit of mystery-story theater — but then he’s plunged into the gulf between real life and the fictions the older Holmes despises. McKellen’s long scene with Morahan is the film’s best, and not just because it’s the least predictable. Morahan lays bare the hurt and real feeling that mysteries make a game of, and McKellen shows us a Holmes who shrinks away from the truth of his own loneliness. Both writing and acting are artful.

Condon’s filmmaking, though, is workaday, especially in the movie’s third and least convincing thread. In the 1940s, Holmes travels to Japan to meet an admirer (Hiroyuki Sanada) who promises access to prickly ash, a plant Holmes believes might best royal jelly as a memory aid. Their journey takes them to Hiroshima, here rendered quickly and without much conviction as a chintzy blackened hellscape. The contrast — a fragile man confronting the horror of an age not his own — is moving in spite of these scenes, not because of them.

That failing doesn’t diminish what matters most here: time with McKellen’s Holmes. Condon trusts his star and our patience, letting scenes run long and sometimes slow. We get to watch old Holmes stumble, fume and doze, but also light up with memory and take pleasure simply in being.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl

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